ISTANBUL -- Mahmoud Hussein, detained in Cairo while wearing an anti-torture t-shirt, is finally free after nearly 800 days behind bars during which he says he was repeatedly tortured.
Hussein, who was 18 years old when he was taken into custody on Jan. 25, 2014, after attending a demonstration against both military rule and the Muslim Brotherhood, has since spent over two years in detention without being formally charged.
While Egyptian activists and government critics welcome his release, Hussein’s freedom has been met with muted jubilation. He should never have been jailed in the first place, they say.
“To understand how bad things are in #Egypt: we’re celebrating news that a kid has been released from jail after [two years] for wearing a t-shirt,” one Egyptian blogger said on Twitter.
Police stopped Hussein at a Cairo checkpoint on the three-year anniversary of Egypt's revolution that overthrew longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. Wearing a t-shirt that said “a nation without torture” and a revolutionary scarf, police accused Hussein of participating in unlawful protests (any demonstration not pre-approved by authorities) and having connections to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Those accusations alone were enough to land Hussein in detention for two years and two months. A Cairo court upheld his release on March 24, letting him go free at 1 a.m. the next morning. A small, overjoyed group of friends, family and activists were there to escort him out of the police station, snapping photographs and celebrating his newfound freedom on social media.
“It's sad that our cause for celebration isn't actual positive achievements, but only the reversal of gross miscarriages of justice,” said Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “There are so many more like him awaiting the end of their oppression. We can't rest until they're all free and the state's use of political imprisonments end.”
Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, thousands of political prisoners -- Islamists, secular activists, academics and journalists alike -- have been locked up. Many, like Hussein, are never formally charged.
Security forces have also “forcibly disappeared” hundreds of people in recent months, holding them in secret detention centers where they are often tortured at will, according to survivors and human rights groups.
The Cairo-based Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms has documented 340 cases of forced disappearances from August to November of last year alone. Eleven of them have reportedly been children.
Egypt has recently come under fire for the grisly murder of 28-year-old Italian student Giulio Regeni who went missing on Jan. 25, the revolution’s five-year anniversary, after conducting controversial research on Egyptian labor unions. His body was found days later on the side of the road outside Cairo, bearing marks of torture commonly inflicted upon political prisoners by security forces.
Egyptian authorities have repeatedly denied any responsibility for the student’s death. On Thursday, authorities said four gang members impersonating Egyptian police who were involved in Regeni’s death had been shot dead.
The European Parliament passed a March 10 resolution condemning the country for what lawmakers describe as a “large-scale campaign of arbitrary detention of critics” in Egypt, a strategic U.S. ally.
Hussein is lucky in that he survived detention and can get on with his life unlike the countless Egyptians who have simply never been heard from again following detention.
Amnesty International demanded on Friday that all “absurd charges” against him be dropped. The rights group also called on authorities to release all political prisoners.
Hussein’s brother Tarek Mohammed Ahmed, lovingly known as “Tito,” has been a staunch advocate ever since his younger brother was detained over two years ago.
“Our parents are heartbroken that instead of building your future, taking exams and finishing your education, your life is on hold in a dark cell,” he wrote in a letter to Hussein on June 8.
On Friday, roughly nine months after writing that letter, Ahmed tweeted a photograph: Two smiling brothers -- him and Hussein -- reunited at last.